Matthew Miller
Nov 26, 2020

Selling the SCMP: Publisher eyes ambitious targets as it re-embraces paywall

The Post revealed a major U-turn in its readership strategy in July, re-embracing a paywall after testing a free model for a few years. The publisher's audience-growth executive Adrian Lee discusses how the publisher is better equipped to achieve ambitious local and international subscriber goals this time round.

Stills from SCMP's new brand film
Stills from SCMP's new brand film

Like many media organisations over the last few years, the South China Morning Post ran at full speed in one direction for a while, and then decided to turn around and run at full speed in precisely the opposite direction.

After dropping its paywall four years ago to invest heavily in building huge readership in a bid for ad dollars, the SCMP in August of this year re-erected its paywall. But to hear Adrian Lee, senior vice president for audience growth, tell it, everything is different now.

The Post, well funded under the ownership of Alibaba, has learned a lot and built new capabilities around data and audience insights in the past few years, all of which Lee believes will help it meet some ambitious subscriber goals.

Campaign sat down with Lee for a look at how the Post is marketing itself, from its overall brand proposition to a slick new video underlining its legacy (which is sitting atop the Post's home page and going out via paid media buys as of today, November 26), to the specific tactics Lee is using to drive people through the funnel to conversion.

Long legacy, big plans

The SCMP has two different but equally ambitious audience goals, Lee says. First, the paper wants to serve every single English-language reader in Hong Kong. "Our intention is that anyone who is an English speaker buys a subscription," Lee says. "That's that's what we're aiming for."

On a global level—where the Post sees itself as "a specialist publication for people who want to know about the impact of China and Asia on the rest of the world"—the goal is to be the news organisation that hits 100,000 subscribers faster than anyone else has done. In other words, SCMP is benchmarking itself against other global news organisations that are comparable in volume, and trying to beat the subscriber numbers those peers achieved at one month out, six months out, and so on. Lee declined to share actual numbers at this early stage.

Adrian Lee

"We are trying to be, as you'd expect, extremely ambitious," Lee says. "If I go back to four years ago, when we had about 3 million monthly active users, the objective was to get to 30 million in a three-year window. And I think at that point, there were a lot of people who just felt it was a total moonshot. We were never going to get there. But at the end of that three-year strategy, we got to 50 million."

Lee admits that some of that was the "Covid bump", as well as Hong Kong's long summer of protests before that. "But the reason why we were able to take advantage of that bump was because of the pipes that we put in place over those three years to make sure that, as a news organisation, we were better able to understand what our readers wanted," Lee says. "But also to understand, if something was spiking, how to make sure that we were able to capture that intent and that interest and be more data-driven in the way that we were creating news and able to react against news."

Hong Kong first

Focus groups revealed that while people are aware of the rich digital experience SCMP delivers—thanks to the work of the last few years—its legacy as a 117-year-old, credible news organisation is what resonates most, especially in the local market. "It's our heritage which gives us credibility and brings eyeballs over to us as a news organisation," Lee says.

So for Hong Kong, the Post's marketing team, working with its internal branded-content studio, created an 80-second video underlining the paper's presence as a trusted observer of more than a century of local history. While Lee argues that the Post has probably never served its readers as well as it has over the past year and a half, it was important to emphasise more than recent events. "The important thing within that video was to show that there is another 117 years of prior affiliation and service to the city," he says.

SCMP is also creating a similar video to appeal to international readers, due for release early next year. "But we wanted to make sure that Hong Kong, as our home city, had a very specific message," Lee says.

The brand proposition in the video rests on the SCMP's ability to execute independent journalism. Asked whether the publication worries that Hong Kong's new national security law undermines its ability to deliver on this promise, Lee says firmly that the editorial mission remains unchanged. The senior editorial staff is devoted to defending a reputation for factual reporting and guarding against self-censorship, he adds.

"From an operations perspective, the Post maintains business as usual," Lee says. "We'll continue to report on the news as we feel is best fit, and that links to the way that we've reported on news for the last 117 years."

The 'Journalism that Hong Kong deserves' video on the SCMP home page today

Intelligent funnel strategy

The Post is diversifying its revenue model in a number of ways, including more events and the recent launch of SCMP Research, which is leveraging editorial expertise to produce and sell reports on specific sectors, such as explaining China's fintech and healthcare industries to a global audience.

But Lee's remit is bringing in the subscription dollars. And to do that he faces challenges that will be familiar to any marketer: analysing the activity of potential customers to hit the right people with the most effective message at the right time.

"We feel that the best way to cost-efficiently drive conversions is to speak to people who are already reading with us," Lee says. "We have a metered paywall at the moment. The idea is that if you have not yet converted but you are reading our content on a monthly basis, at some point, you will see either one of our display banners or one of our videos to try and push you over into becoming a paid subscriber."

The Post uses retargeting to reach out to those who perhaps landed on the subscription page but didn't convert. With data structures in place to understand journey and attribution, the site can target particular users with particular messages—a pricing-based offer versus a 'support professional journalism' message. The latter, happily, is a message far more people are receptive to these days. There are also more functional messages, talking about, for example, unlimited access across desktop and mobile.

"One of the big things that we focus on is recirculation," Lee says. "So not only how many pageviews are you consuming when you come on site, but which areas of the site are you engaged in. Is it hard news—US/China trade war kind of stuff? Or is it kind of softer celebrity-type news? How long are you spending on site? How long are you spending on page?"

The attribution report is "mammoth", Lee says. Mindful that data can be made to support any narrative that you want, whereas finding the most effective actions remains tricky, the Post has formed a cross-departmental team under what it calls the Rosetta project. Rosetta has squads devoted to optimising top-of-funnel acquisition, mid-funnel retention and engagement, and finally conversion.

"In theory, if the top of the funnel, around acquisition, is focused purely on 'How do I just make sure that the great content I'm creating is seen by the most number of people?', and then the squad underneath that is focusing on 'How can we make sure that once those people are in, that they're looking at two articles rather than one?', then it all kind of ladders down to make sure that the revenue piece will take care of itself," Lee says.

The team has built up six different personas based on different behaviours, including the type of content consumed, the time spent on site and actions such as creating a free account or signing up for newsletters. "So we have everything from a kind of flyby cohort, who may read one or two articles each month, and they're probably seeing something very specific, all the way to our loyal and engaged readers, who are reading five, six or seven articles in a single session," he says.

SCMP's internal first-party data platform, Lighthouse, launched this past summer, plays a key role in the effort to understand the audience. In addition, the data team has built a propensity model so that marketing efforts can be extended to 'lookalike' consumers via third-party data sets, Lee adds.

For now, the focus is on using Hong Kong and Southeast Asia as a test bed. But Lee expects the lessons learned to extend to SCMP's bid for global readers as well. "Test, learn, iterate very quickly, and then move on to the rest of the world," he says.


Adrian Lee, SVP, Audience Growth
Wayne Knowles, Creative Director
Irene Yuen, Marketing Director, Brand & Content
Jenny Tse, Senior Manager, Brand Marketing
Michala Sabnani, Branded Content Director, Morning Studio
Nick Jones, Senior Video Producer, Morning Studio
Trishna Mahtani, Associate Video Producer, Morning Studio
Maciej Slomczynski, Lead Art Director, Morning Studio

Campaign Asia

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